How can I be a better apologist?


I am sometimes asked how to get training in apologetics. Given that I am a Bible College lecturer who teaches these things it may surprise you that recommending a college course is not at the top of my list.

If you are interested in apologetics, and feel the need for more training, here are the suggestions I would offer.

Read

First, I would say read widely. Of course you may prefer watching online videos to written words, but I doubt many competent apologists get away without the thoughtful reflection that follows the pace of reading books and articles. Reading widely includes the Bible, theology, sermons, history, politics, news, novels and, importantly, books by those who are not Christians.

Prayer and fellowship

Secondly (though first in importance), don’t neglect prayer and Christian fellowship. Prayer reminds us that we depend on God and that our walk with Him is primary. Fellowship with other believers keeps us grounded, encouraged and realistic. Some people who engage in apologetics end up hyper-critical and inflexible, something that fellowship can soften. Effective apologetics requires emotional intelligence.

Philosophy

Thirdly, do some philosophy. A good overview of the history of philosophers and a simple introduction to logic is enough to give us a basic sense of why ideas matter and how to spot a fallacy. With some tools like these we can watch a news interview or a political speech and evaluate the persuasiveness of an argument.

Non-Christian friends

Fourthly, maintain friendships with those outside of church. Too much apologetics is an internal pursuit – Christians talking to Christians about what we believe. There is a place for that, but we are called to share our faith with those who doubt. Not only should we care for our friends who don’t believe, but our friendships with them will help us to avoid the bubble of faith that can make us lose touch with how the world thinks and why people don’t believe. The very tone we use, and illustrations we draw upon, need an awareness of the shifting attitudes in culture.

Going further?

But what if you want to go further and develop more formal training? There are great courses, whether non-accredited programmes or higher-level postgraduate degrees, offered in the UK. With the rapid development of online delivery it is no longer necessary to move house or even give up a job in order to complete a relevant MA or PhD. But I would add a caution here. Even as a Bible College teacher I would discourage anyone from considering apologetics an end in itself.

Many of the greatest apologists in history have used skills acquired elsewhere for the task. John Lennox is a Professor of Mathematics, C.S. Lewis was a scholar of literature, Francis Schaeffer had been an evangelist and missionary, while Alister McGrath trained as both a scientist and a theologian. A simple observation is that some of the best apologetic material emerges from skills and expertise acquired elsewhere.

What really interests you? It could be history, politics, football, film, music or motorcycle maintenance. Develop your skills in the areas where you feel God has given you a particular calling or passion. Could you develop your expertise and depth of insight in that area as a Christian so that you can use it to share your faith, engage unbelief and make the case for Christ? Maybe the need is not so much for more Christians becoming apologists, but more Christians being the best mechanics, historians, film makers and nurses they can be and making the defence of their faith in those fields.

Chris Sinkinson

Chris Sinkinson is a Lecturer in Theology at Moorlands College.

Igniting our hearts and minds


CORPORATE WORSHIP:
How the Church Gathers as God’s People
By Matt Merker
Crossway Books (9 Marks). 174 pages.
£11.99 (hardback)
ISBN 978 1 433 569 821

If there’s one book on gathering, worship and singing that I could give to everyone on our music team, it’s Corporate Worship by Matt Merker. In fact, I will do so, as we relaunch into the new normal following the lifting of restrictions, and I’d love to see my whole congregation reading it, too.

Emerging from a season where we’ve not been able to gather for corporate worship, I can’t think of a more vital time for our churches to rediscover the joy of gathering as God’s people in God’s presence. What Matt has achieved, quite brilliantly I think, is to present a balanced, nuanced, well-illustrated and explained survey of the central Biblical teachings on matters surrounding corporate worship in a short, accessible book that’s a delight to read.

Particular highlights include the way he shows us how Scripture frames the gathering as something the living God calls us to each week, and how that dynamic radically affects every facet of our gathered worship. (That makes it a vital read for church leaders, too; get your pastor a copy!)

I hugely appreciate the way he clearly preserves the balance of Scripture in expressing how we gather in God’s presence and for His glory and to edify and encourage one another and before the eyes of the watching world, without pitting these realities against one another as many are prone to do. That’s the real strength of this book: thoughtful, simple and holistic presentation of what God calls us to in Scripture regarding corporate worship that ignites hearts and minds to treasure our gatherings.

The sample orders of service from a variety of traditions, discussion questions at the end of each chapter, and Matt’s continual and specific applications throughout the chapters (not just to singing together, but to every aspect of our corporate worship) means this is far from being an academic study, but gets right down into the nitty-gritty of church life.

My hope is for our music team (and beyond!) to discuss over lunch what’s encouraged them, inspired them and caused them to think, before heading in to rehearsal – no doubt buzzing from seeing again the spiritual realities at play as God calls us to worship, and humbled yet privileged to play their part in aiding the worship of God’s church. Perhaps you could consider getting a bunch of copies for the musicians and leaders in your church so you can read, discuss, apply and pray together into your church context.

So, as we get back to gathering as God designed, and as we gear up to plan worship services, lead, and participate in congregational singing, you could have no greater boost of encouragement and wisdom than this timely, profound-yet-small book. May the Lord use it in your church to bless you as you rediscover the joy of gathering for corporate worship.

Ben Slee

Ben Slee (@BenSleeMusic) is the Music Pastor at Christ Church Mayfair in London. He’s a songwriter and the author of The Dwell Richly Course for church music leaders and musicians.

How big is too big?


During the depths of lockdown I was out walking having a pastoral conversation when we bumped into someone who went to the same church. I was surprised to find myself being asked: ‘Would you introduce me to your friend?’ They had been members in the same largish church for around six years and, though they had seen each other, had never had a conversation.

At the very least, a church needs a team spirit across the congregation. But can this be there when people have never even spoken to one another?

Beautiful churches

When it comes to the practical workings of churches in ways that please the Lord, the pictures of a family and the church as the body of Christ are at the forefront in the New Testament. When the members of a church love one another like brothers and sisters and act together like a coordinated body with every member involved for the good of all, this is beautiful in God’s sight. Out of the matrix of family love within the church, a whole raft of ‘one another’ commands emerge in the NT. Further, the leaders are designated ‘elders’, indicating they are mature members of the community who, having brought

up their own earthly families well (1 Tim.3:4,5), will have a wise and fatherly approach to the church family. In Scripture we find that the initial large congregation in Jerusalem soon failed to treat each other as close family (Acts 6.1f).

Because of the need for greater organisation and the difficulties of communication with many more people, larger churches tend to go down the route of becoming professionalised. The church employs not just a pastor, but a whole staff – administrators, assistants, women’s workers, family workers, etc. Fairly soon church becomes something of a ‘spectator sport’ for ordinary church members as the professionals get on with the job.

The truth is that a family atmosphere and every-member participation come far more naturally in a smaller church, and are difficult to maintain in a larger one.

How big? 

There is no number laid down in Scripture for the size of a church. But I want to suggest that once a church begins to find it difficult to know one another and be a family in which everyone has a vital part to play, it is time to think about planting a new congregation.

Social skills are important in maintaining the cohesion and purpose of a church. These do depend on the ability to recognise and understand other church members. According to research, Dunbar’s Number – the natural upper limit to the number of people we can easily relate to in a group as human beings – is around 150.

Here is a quote from New Scientist. ‘Historically, it was the average size of English villages. It is also the ideal size for church parishes, and is the size of the basic military unit, the company. Although an individual’s social network may include many more people, 150 contacts marks the cognitive limit on those with whom we can maintain a stable social relationship involving trust and obligation – move beyond 150 and people are mere acquaintances’.

Scattered for the gospel

We do find large congregations in Scripture. But in the OT the gatherings of ‘all Israel’ were only for special occasions, while weekly religious life revolved around households and local synagogues. In the NT we find that the 3,000 converted at Pentecost, which soon grew to 5,000, not only ran into problems, but were soon scattered by persecution to carry the gospel into all the world (Acts 8.4; 11.19).

John Benton

John Benton is Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, http://www.pastorsacademy.org

659,442 Bible questions


GOT QUESTIONS
ww.gotquestions.org

Got Questions Ministries seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by providing Biblical, applicable, and timely answers to spiritually related questions through an internet presence.

On the day of writing, Got Questions had answered 659,442 Bible questions. The homepage of the website shows you the number of questions answered and an opportunity to search for a subject or specific question. The homepage also has links to their ‘Top 20 Questions’, the 100 newest articles, and their ‘Top 20 Articles’.

Further down the homepage, there is an opportunity to subscribe to their ‘Question of the Week’.

The approach chosen to answer the questions takes a short article format. This normally includes a video with graphics and the article spoken over the graphics. Each article concludes with a summary, plus recommended resources and related topics links.

Got Questions does not have a statement of faith as such, but has a mission statement that includes the distinction that they are ‘Christian, Protestant, evangelical, theologically conservative, and non-denominational’.

Answers from the Bible

On reading some of the articles and even using the website myself from time to time, they are careful to deliberately steer clear of opinion or conjecture. Got Questions, as far as I can determine, only look to provide Biblically-based answers for the many questions they have received and answered. I do not doubt that the Got Questions staff are thorough in their pursuit of Biblical truth.

In their ‘About Us’ blurb, they state that their answers are ‘reviewed for Biblical and theological accuracy’ by their staff, and include a link to the plethora of seminaries and universities from which their staff have achieved Bachelors, Masters, or Doctorates.

Naturally, with the sheer number of questions and answers available, there are all sorts of questions along a broad spectrum of topics. For example, their ‘Top 20’ questions include ‘Do pets/animals go to Heaven? Do pets/animals have souls?’ all the way to ‘What does the Bible say about sex before marriage?’

All in all, Got Questions should prove a great resource for church leaders and congregation alike.

THE BIBLE RECAP
By D-Group http://www.thebiblerecap.com
Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play and YouTube

The Bible Recap is a short daily podcast (approx. 8 minutes) hosted by Tara-Leigh Cobble and aims to highlight and summarise that day’s Bible reading in a casual, easy to understand way.

The Bible Recap goes through the Bible chronologically and we jump in on Day 207, which is Isaiah 40–43. This is The Bible Recap’s third year of reading the whole Bible chronologically and Cobble’s tenth time of doing so.

Cobble lives in Dallas, Texas and is an author, radio host and founder of D-Group; a network of men’s and women’s discipleship and Bible study groups that meet weekly in homes around the world.

This episode begins with Cobble summarising the last episode and moving on in the chronological reading plan. Cobble goes chapter by chapter giving a well-rounded, in-depth summary of the chapter(s) for that day.

This podcast is accessible to everyone, no matter their level of education or theological understanding. Cobble has a brilliant way of communicating what the passage is about without sounding like she is giving a lecture. Cobble also manages to leave you wanting more. She delivers the story in a way that almost compels you to listen to the following episode to hear what happens next.

For those who struggle with keeping up with a Bible plan or reading the Bible at all, I think could benefit from this podcast. It follows the overarching story of Scripture as it happens and even though it is only eight minutes long (which is rather short in comparison to most podcasts), it is jam-packed full of context and teaching.

Jordan Brown

Jordan Brown is part of New Life Church in Biggin Hill and is training to be a pastor.

Mission 2022: churches prepare to reach out afresh


We have all heard the phrase ‘build back better’ many times in recent days as everyone seeks to establish what a new normal will look like.

For the church of our Lord Jesus Christ the pandemic has given all of us an opportunity to review much of our activity and to ask serious questions, as we emerge from the various restrictions, as to how we can recalibrate and refocus on the centrality of the good news of the gospel.

Gathering and preparing

Many churches across the UK and Ireland are gathering and preparing for a united month of mission leading up to April 2022, journeying together under the united banner of ‘A Passion for Life’. APFL longs to see the gospel of Christ proclaimed to every generation across the UK and Ireland by:

• Building confidence in Bible-centred, Christ-proclaiming evangelism

• Inspiring, encouraging and resourcing all-year-round evangelism

• Stimulating earnest and united prayer for the advance of the gospel

• Coming together for times of nationwide mission in March/April 2022

• Stirring up our churches to an ever-increasing passion to be used of God to bring people to new life in Christ.

The momentum is gathering pace and the delivery team is seeking to put an arm around local church leaders by supporting them in strengthening the mission culture of the local church, through: webinars; podcasts and helpful materials; in providing a bespoke suite of personal evangelism training resources for church leaders to use; and in collating an array of mission ideas and practical guides for effective engagement in our communities.

Over the past few months, church leaders have been gathering online in webinar format to pray with one another and to reflect upon the health and strength of the mission culture within the churches they serve. Of course, every church has a culture of mission or evangelism, but the health of that culture varies greatly, and a central aim of the gatherings has been to partner together to strengthen, encourage and mutually equip.

The apostle Paul, writing in one of his lockdown epistles to the church at Philippi, speaks of a partnership in grace, a partnership in prayer, a partnership in giving and a partnership in the gospel; and this is a helpful summary of the way in which local church leaders are working together in this initiative.

Three of the reflections on how we can strengthen the culture of mission in our local churches have been:

1. The importance of leaders find-ing space to be a model

This is not a call to the catwalk, but instead an encouragement to ‘what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things’ (Phil.4:9). Our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated for His disciples how to live, how to pray, how to use Scripture and how to win the lost. He himself did not ask them to do something He was not doing, and one of the great joys of observing His practice is how real, how practical and how natural His approach is.

As church leaders it is so important to teach the gospel, to give people a clear understanding of it, for evangelistic living will flow naturally from being well taught. This is also true of what we sing, what we celebrate and how we bring a gospel focus to the sacraments. However, it has been exciting to witness church leaders wrestling with how, amid all the pressures of the pastoral ministry, they can make space in their diary to model for others what everyday evangelistic living looks like.

The power of that example and its influence and impact upon the culture of mission in the local church is significant. Some have been reading the Bible one-to-one evangelistically with non-believers, others have been at the forefront of bringing unbelieving friends to evangelistic courses or events, while others have been intentionally making space in their calendars to be an active member of a local community group with a view to being salt and light. Importantly, they have been sharing this with others, not as a boast, but as an encouragement and an example.

2. Identifying, training and equipping everyday believers

In any attempt to strengthen the mission culture of our church it is important to identify the early adopters, those who get the importance of it almost intuitively. Three characteristics to look for are:

• A love for God demonstrated in the words people use, the actions they perform, and the priorities they establish for themselves.

• A love for the lost – which can be ascertained as you listen to people’s prayers and the burden of their conversation.

• A love for doing what the word of God says – the emphasis being upon not simply hearing God’s word but knowing the blessing that flows from doing it.

Although in the church it is Jesus who is our ultimate leader, and pastor-teachers have particular leadership roles under Him, every believer is a leader in some way shape or form. We all have to show leadership, firstly of ourselves, and then in other areas of our lives – for example work, parenting, sport, etc. In this context, it becomes easier to strengthen the mission culture of our church when we equip people to own mission, to grow in their roles within it and to fall in love with making Jesus known.

This is done best when leaders learn to inspire others with simplicity, and clarity, and by providing real opportunities to participate. Leaders have an opportunity every time they meet people to help them grow in this important area of discipleship and every gathering can be an opportunity to affirm, correct, encourage or celebrate with them.

One story was of a local pastor who in conducting baptismal services not only invites the person being baptised to give a testimony, but also asks for a testimony from the person that God used in bringing the person to faith. It’s simple, it’s clear, and it is very inspiring for others to realise that while it is always God who gives faith, He delights to use everyday believers in the process.

3. The power of partnership

As leaders have met other leaders from across the UK and Ireland, many of them jaded by navigating the waters of recent times, it has been a privilege to witness the encouragement that flows out of their cooperation, their shared creativity, and their generous giving spirit. Tragically, the church has at times been a breeding ground for enlarged egos, divisive silos, and a competitive spirit. However, the emphasis on journeying together in strengthening the mission culture of the church nationally is producing healthy fruit.

Unsurprisingly, the more people pray together the more willing they are to share people, share gifting, and share resources. The partnership is laser-focused on gospel truths, knowing the gospel, loving the gospel, and sharing the gospel. As a result, it is aiming for gospel fruit and all of that cannot but magnify Jesus and serve as a wonderful display of the glory of God.

A wonderful spirit of humility, interdependence and cooperation is being fostered, and it has been a joy to hear the reports of church leaders in each nation offering up prayers for the strengthening of local churches – in far-flung geographical places from themselves – and of prayer being answered throughout the UK and Ireland.

As APFL gathers more momentum, the production stage for a suite of personal evangelism training resources is moving into the editing phase and every church that registers their interest on our website – www. apassionforlife.org.uk – will have access to them. We are planning to run a feature on these resources in a future edition, but would encourage you to have a look at what’s on offer in A Passion for Life.

Currently in our nation when, due to the pandemic, we have never been closer to our neighbours, or so conscious of our own mortality, the APFL strapline – ‘A month of mission, a lifetime of evangelism, a passion for life’ – seems like a word in season to the church.

John MacKinnon

John MacKinnon is part of the APFL ‘delivery team’ in charge of training and training resources.

Evangelical affectiveness (and that’s not a typo!)


It wasn’t long after deciding on the above title that I wondered if it would be assumed to contain a ‘typo’ and that I actually meant to write ‘evangelical effectiveness’.

Certainly, there is no lack of evangelical writing on effective leadership. For example, when you search Amazon.com using the phrase ‘evangelical effective’, you will see 35 books listed in the results. In contrast, the phrase ‘evangelical affective’ only yields a single result.

Now, some might attribute that difference solely to the fact that, in modern parlance, ‘effective’ is far more prevalent than ‘affective’. Yet, when you search for both those words in the handy Google Books N-gram Viewer (which charts word frequencies in sources that were written between 1500 and 2019), you will find that the difference in usage is nowhere near as pronounced as some might imagine.

In fact, when you search for ‘affective’ by itself (defined as ‘relating to, arising from, or influencing feelings or emotions’), you will find a wealth of learned writing on that subject.

Let me be clear that I’m not implying that there is an overall reluctance among evangelicals to tackle tough emotional issues, such as bereavement, depression and suicide.

Instead, what I am saying is that, when discussing morality and ethics, we (and I include myself) can become over-reliant on what I call ‘confessional rationalism’ rather than also engaging affectively with those issues.

Here, I should emphasise two things. Firstly, I am not dismissing the value of confessional declarations per se. Indeed, down through the centuries, those statements have reflected an admirable commitment to integrity within the Reformed tradition (I think of Luther and Bonhoeffer). In situations of moral crisis, our adherence to a common confession has served the church well.

Secondly, I am not implying that subjective feelings or ‘lived experience’ should replace reason as the sole arbiter of truth.

Instead, I’m deeply concerned that over-reliance on confessional/doctrinal apologetic reasoning can and has resulted in an arid soulless rationalism, which is devoid of pastoral engagement and empathy.

For example, there have been several high-profile court cases and tribunals which have involved Christians invoking their (Article 9) human right of freedom to manifest their religion and belief (e.g. Ladele v. London Borough of Islington and the more recent Richard Page v. Lord Chancellor)

When Christians have lost their cases, it has been all too easy for evangelical commentators to join in the ‘pile-on’ and adopt an unyieldingly censorious tone without expressing a whit of sympathy for their fellow believer.

Similarly, after the Euro 2020 final, despite the heartening way in which our country rallied behind the three young black England footballers who had been deluged with racist tweets (and who also happened to be Christians), I was deeply saddened by some evangelicals, who were incapable of expressing deep sympathy towards these young victims of racism and were more intent on downplaying the gravity of the offence.

To them, the real danger was not the harm caused by such vile bigotry (which they readily attributed to Russian bots).

Instead, they expressed far more concern over the fact that English footballers were ‘taking the knee’, which they readily interpreted as incontrovertible evidence that the team had all but surrendered to a rising tide of cultural Marxism.

What they had abandoned was St Paul’s explicit exhortation to empathy: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom. 12:15).

And that tendency towards cold rationalism is neither winsome, nor is it particularly Scriptural.

For example, St Paul readily interspersed his discourse with pastoral engagement and deep empathy. Consider these affective excerpts from his letter to the Philippians, which would have been read aloud before that congregation:

• ‘I thank my God every time I remember you’

• ‘In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now’

• ‘I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel’

• ‘God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus’

• ‘You whom I love and long for, my joy and crown’

Even when Paul is warning the church about sinful behaviour or false teaching, he doesn’t just call out the culprits. He tells the church that he has wept bitterly over them (Acts 20:19; 2 Cor.2:4; Phil.3:18)

Erudite scrutiny is valuable. But for evangelicals to prize it at the expense of affective empathy is not merely wrong-headed. It’s downright unscriptural. That should be reason enough to change.

David Shepherd is an active member of Beacon Community Church in Camberley and was formerly a Deanery Synod Representative in the Diocese of Guildford.

Image: Vicki Nunn – Pixabay

Is it possible to be good without God?


William Christofides explores the question, does Atheism provide an adequate basis for morality?

In his book on Humanism, Jim Herrick writes: ‘For humanists, morality is a human construct underpinned by our biological development’.1

To say morality is a human construct is to say that it has no objective value. To be objective a thing must, by definition, be independent of human thought. For instance, the planet Jupiter is objective as it continues to exist whether humanity recognises it nor not, as are the stars and the cosmos. By Herrick’s definition, right and wrong do not ultimately exist, as they are simply what a society collectively decides is acceptable or not. For instance: rape, murder, torture, lying, slavery, and genocide appear wrong to us; but that is only because we decided it. If a society decided these things were acceptable, there would be no objective standard to refute them. Since morality is a human construct, different groups of humans can decide for themselves what is right and wrong. In some societies, human sacrifice is acceptable. If morality is a human construct, who are we to criticise their ideas?

This moral dilemma is illustrated by David Rose, who relates a true story of a Catholic missionary who attempted to convert a tribe who practiced human sacrifice. The Catholic missionary ‘compared the pure and simple rite of the Catholic Mass with the hideous practice of human sacrifice’. However, the tribe leader responded that ‘it was much less revolting to him … to sacrifice human beings than it was to eat the flesh and blood of God Himself.’ From this, Rose concludes: ‘Simply stated, intuitions are not universal, but expressions of our individual, social and historical characters and are – as such – arbitrary, true merely by luck’.2

Mobile morality

In our own time it is clear that a society’s understanding of morality is never static. What was once considered acceptable (and even commendable) is later repudiated and condemned. This is powerfully illustrated in the #metoo movement. The French author Gabriel Matzneff made his literary career out of the sexual exploitation of underage girls. In 1974 he wrote: ‘To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.’3 Matzneff was not unique in his views. In 1977 a group of French authors, intellectuals, and philosophers (including Roland Barthes, Jacque Derrida, and Michel Foucault) signed a petition which called for the ‘decriminalisation of all consensual relations between adults and minors below the age of 15’.4 It is clear from these examples that it is not always safe to base one’s morality on what is socially acceptable.

Some Atheists and Humanists have tried to get around this moral relativism by appealing to human progress. They accept that our society has held abhorrent views in the past, and that other cultures today continue to hold them, but we have progressed beyond that! By using science and reason, they say, humanity can gradually discover what is correct and put aside backward and archaic values. Steven Pinker writes: ‘With our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism, humanity could make intellectual and moral progress.’5 Such views of human progress were widely held by Humanists and liberal theologians in the 19th century. In a Christmas sermon in 1867, the liberal Anglican Benjamin Jowett said:

‘[There] seem to be very real improvements which we have ourselves witnessed. And they show that the world is not always getting worse and worse, but is upon the whole in some degree better than formerly, whatever we may be as individuals. There may be some temporary distress during the present year, but upon the whole we are all better off, both in material and moral well-being.

‘… I think that we certainly gather from the past, the lesson of confidence and hope of good upon the whole increased, and evils likely to be diminished, because they begin to be more realised. And although there are some dark spots on the horizon at present, yet there is no reason to think that any dangers are coming upon us which may not be averted by firmness and prudence; especially if we do not allow ourselves to be diverted from the plain duties by panic fears and unreasoning prejudices.’6

War and ‘reason’

Here the same values of reason, science, and progress were espoused. However, these optimistic views of human progress were severely tried by the devastating events of the 20th century. Again, Jim Herrick writes: ‘As a century of war, genocide and totalitarianism it was an appalling period’.7 The atrocities of the 20th century do not seem to fit into the 19th century’s optimistic narrative of ‘confidence and hope of good upon the whole increased, and evils likely to be diminished’. If people in the 19th century were wrong to think human society would gradually improve with the advances of science and reason, what makes us think we are right today?

The fact of history is that scientific advances do not necessarily result in moral improvements, and ‘reason’ has often been championed to justify the most bizarre, counter-intuitive, and abhorrent actions. The cause of ‘reason’ was perhaps at its height during the Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe. Whereas thinkers like Steven Pinker praise Enlightenment thinkers as those who applied ‘the standard of reason to understand our world, and [did] not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts,’8 cultural historians have shown that these thinkers entertained many strange and irrational notions. Alister McGrath observes:

‘The 18th century [was not] consistently rational in every aspect. In fact, the Enlightenment is now recognised to be intellectually heterogeneous, including a remarkable variety of anti-rational movements such as Mesmerism and Masonic rituals. Mesmerism is of particular interest. The movement takes its name from Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a German physician who achieved considerable success in Paris. Mesmerism was grounded in astrology and the occult, and laid particular emphasis upon the therapeutic powers of animal magnetism and the potential of hypnotic séances. The strongly irrational character of this movement, which gained a considerable following within the Paris social élite on the eve of the French Revolution, is a reminder that the “Age of Reason” had its decidedly less-reasonable aspects.’9

This demonstrates that, contrary to Pinker’s assertion, ‘reason’ for the Enlightenment thinkers did not exclude the so-called ‘generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts’. If reason has so many faces, how can it be a reliable foundation for morality?

Nothing beyond ourselves?

If morality cannot be clearly discerned from societal norms, science, or reason, then where else can we look? Are we left in agnosticism and scepticism when it comes to moral issues? Such was the conclusion of the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Starting from the premise ‘Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself,’ (thereby excluding the external authorities of society, science, and reason) Sartre concludes: ‘If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to say that it is good and not bad’. Elsewhere he states: ‘If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.’10 Such then is the position the Atheists find themselves. There is no moral imperative beyond themselves to which they appeal. They may choose to largely subscribe to a Christian ethic, a Marxist ethic, or a Hedonistic ethic. The choice is theirs!

From what has been said so far, an objective source for morality needs to be: 1) independent of human thought, 2) transcend societal norms, and 3) transcend the limits of autonomous human reason. Christian theism meets all these requirements.

Christian theism

Firstly, Christianity holds that God is not bound by our subjective impressions and thoughts of Him. He is not, as liberal theologians like Feuerbach suggest, an embodiment of our ideals and aspirations. The Bible says: ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ This tells us that God is beyond our thoughts and is therefore objective. It is from such a source that an objective ground for morals can be found.

Being objective and high beyond us, God’s moral character and requirements transcend all societal norms, thus meeting the second criteria needed for objective morality. The Bible says: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.’ God’s goodness and love endure forever, and are an eternal objective standard against which we measure our morality. Again, the Bible says: ‘Be holy, because I am holy, and be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ When God defines goodness and perfection, He always points to Himself, since God is good and perfect.

Finally, being high beyond us, His standard of what is right for us necessarily transcends our limited scope of reason. The medieval poet and theologian Dante wrote: ‘Reason has short wings.’ Dante demonstrates how human reason is capable of incredible feats: it could search out the ways of Earth and Nature and could understand the workings of the human mind. However, when it came to the great questions of purpose and meaning, reason had to stop. In these matters Dante had to submit to revelation (symbolised in his poetry as the Divine Beatrice). This is what the Bible says: ‘The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.’ There are certain things we cannot comprehend which only God knows. Only God knows what is good, as no-one is good except God alone. Goodness would always remain secret to us if God had not revealed it to us in the Bible, and ultimately in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, and when we look to Him, we see what goodness looks like in practice!

William Christofides is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University reading history. His interests range from Welsh history to Idealist philosophy. He is a member at St Mellons Baptist Church, Cardiff.

FOOTNOTES

Jim Herrick, Humanism: An Introduction p.34.
David Rose, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: A Reader’s Guide p.17.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/world/europe/ france-pedophilia-gabriel-matzneff.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_petition_ against_age_of_consent_laws
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now p.11.
Benjamin Jowett, Sermons: Biographical and Miscellaneous pp.361,367.
Jim Herrick, Humanism: An Introduction p.115.
5 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now p.8.
Alister McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology, 1750-1990 p.15.
10 Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism & Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet, pp.30, 35, 41. Emphasis added.

Enjoying God more, enjoying sex more


JESUS, LOVER OF MY SOUL: 
Fresh Pathways to Spiritual Passion
By Julian Hardyman
IVP. 183 pages. £9.99
ISBN 978 1 789 741 735

This book is a lively reflection on the tiny, enigmatic Song of Songs. In 20 brief chapters the author explores the Song. Each chapter concludes with questions for further thoughtful action and a short prayer.

People tend to see Song of Songs through one of two dominant lenses. One lens sees the book as an ancient sex manual. Another lens, with an ancient pedigree, sees the Song as an extended meditation on the intimate relationship between the divine lover and His people. This lens has a variety of tints and filters. Some take a relatively restrained approach that draws links between human love and marriage, and the relationship God’s people have with the divine bridegroom. Others almost allow their imaginations to run typological riot in their interpretation.

The middle way

Hardyman wisely treads a middle way by viewing the Song with bifocal lenses. Jesus, Lover of My Soul sees the Song as a celebration of human love that reveals a deeper experience of love in our relationship with the divine lover. Feedback from the sermon series on which this book is based is scattered throughout the book; these messages clearly hit the spot. I like the way that the author weaves Biblical reflection with the soundtrack of his life, through musical references and honest observations about everyday life. One of the most helpful statements is: ‘People generally think that the main theme of the Song of Songs is sex. As I have studied it, I have realised that the main theme is actually desire.’

Permission to enjoy

The author helps the reader to challenge misdirected and disordered desires. The book includes two chapters on the corrosive nature of porn as one of these intimacy wreckers. Maybe the best thing about this book is that it grants permission to enjoy God and His good gift of sex. It reminded me that I am a person loved by God and helped me to reflect on how to love in a way that is pleasing to God.

The September issue of Evangelicals Now is out now!


The September issue of Evangelicals Now is out now! With features on evangelism in 2022, cricket, the Festival of Light and much more, as well as all the usual news and reviews.

Visit e-n.org.uk to get a copy, or to sign up for a FREE two week digital trial

Martin Luther’s most dangerous moment


On 18 April, 1521, almost exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther experienced what was probably the most dangerous moment of his entire life.

He had been asked to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, the Spaniard Charles V, at the imperial Parliament (Diet) which had been called to meet at Worms, which was situated on the Upper Rhine, about 40 miles south of Frankfurt.

Luther’s teaching

In the previous four years there had been a number of attempts by key authorities in the Roman Church to convince Luther of the errors of his teaching that Christians are declared righteous by a holy God simply by faith alone in the crucified Christ. It was rightly understood by all who took part in the ensuing controversy that Luther’s views rendered much of the medieval system of piety utterly worthless. Charles had been given the authority to burn Luther at the stake if he refused to recant.

Luther first appeared before the emperor on 17 April. It would have be an awe-inspiring occasion with all of the German princes and nobles and their retinues as well as the emperor and his Spanish guard. Luther was presented with the 30 or so books he had written since 1517 and asked if he would renounce them.

It was an unusually diffident Luther who replied. He asked for 24 hours to consider his reply. This was granted and he appeared before Charles V again the following day, 18 April. When asked the same question as the day before, Luther’s diffidence was gone, swept away by his more usual boldness.

Luther’s response to the emperor

He told the emperor that his books fell into three categories: there were books of piety, like his marvellous The Freedom of a Christian (1520), and of course, he felt there was nothing wrong in those and how could he reject their teachings. Then there were those books in which he had criticised the papacy, and there was no way he was going to recant from such attacks, because the pope was wrong in maintaining views at odds with a plain reading of Scripture. And then there were books responding to those who had critiqued his attacks on the bishop of Rome. Again, he was not prepared to recant from anything in those, since they should not have defended such blatant errors, though he was sorry for the harshness of the tone of his attacks.

He then declared in words that have echoed down to the present-day: ‘Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.’

The significance of Luther’s words

Luther’s brave stand at Worms, face to face most likely with a fiery death, sealed the break with Rome of those who came to be called Protestants. It also decisively determined that the movement that followed in his train – Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and even Anabaptist – would be a Biblicist one in which a spirituality of the word shaped its piety. And, though the Reformers did not realise it in their day, Luther standing before the most powerful prince in Europe with the Scriptures as his only armament set the tone for the church in the far future, when she cast the support of princes to the four winds and relied solely upon the Holy Spirit – solo Sancto Spiritu.

Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Photograph: Monument to Martin Luther in Wittenberg. Photograph by iStock.